New Press Books Provide Critical Insight Into North Korea, Russian Voting Patterns

Point of View column by Joe Brinley, director, Woodrow Wilson Center Press Centerpoint, February 2006

Feb 01, 2006

The two newest books from Woodrow Wilson Center Press offer a good perspective on our Press's place in the world of books. Above all, both books give their readers critical insight into current events.

One of them, Kim Il Sung in the Khrushchev Era: Soviet-DPRK Relations and the Roots of North Korean Despotism, 1953–1964, by Balázs Szalontai, helps explain how North Korea became such an unusual country. It tells how North Korea's first dictator, Kim Il Sung, pushed for economic self-reliance and political independence. Under him, despotic North Korea was less docile than other Soviet clients, whose thaws during the 1950s emulated Soviet de-Stalinization. In the 1950s, North Korea began to exhibit the isolation—economic, diplomatic, and cultural—that still characterizes it under his son, Kim Jong Il.

The other book, Voting for Russia's Governors: Regional Elections and Accountability under Yeltsin and Putin, by Andrew Konitzer, asks whether Russians are fit to vote—a question Putin's own government answered negatively when it ended direct popular election of regional executives in December 2004. Konitzer, however, answers positively, showing how from 2001 to 2004 Russians succeeded notably at voting out of office regional executives who were doing worse than their neighbors at one crucial task—managing the local economy.

Both books display thorough research conducted at the highest level. Balázs Szalontai exploits the records of Hungary's foreign service, which was highly active in Pyongyang in the 1950s and gleaned a good deal of privileged information from both its Soviet patron and its North Korean host. Beyond this, Szalontai makes full use of recent discoveries in limited Soviet sources and other East European archives.

Andrew Konitzer attacks his subject from a number of angles: through a Russia-wide analysis of regional election results, through an in-depth survey of voters' perceptions and actions in a single region, and through a comparative study of Russia with Ukraine, which instituted central appointment of regional governors years before Russia did.

Szalontai is a longtime collaborator with the Center's Cold War International History Project; Konitzer wrote his book as a Kennan Institute research scholar in 2002–03.

Neither is an easy read, and both are co-published in small printings through eminent university presses—Szalontai through Stanford and Konitzer through Johns Hopkins. Nevertheless, the marketing of these books worldwide assures their accessibility to specialists who can profit from the detail; published reviews will alert specialists in allied fields to the books' main arguments and conclusions; and incorporation of their ideas into teaching, writing, and further research will influence students, citizens, and decision-makers in years to come.

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